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The wind pierced through my coat and snowflakes hung on my eyelashes, nearly blinding me. My face was numb and my nose was running. I reached a gloved hand up to wipe snot and snow from my face only to make it worse.
I listened to the crunch of the snow under my thin black high tops as I walked down the street. It was early, 5:57 am, but I had to leave at this time to catch the bus.
I put my ear buds in and kept walking, mind wandering and wishing I'd listened to my mother when she told me to dress warmer. Cargo pants and Converse didn't do such a great job of trapping body heat.
Across the street, I saw the bus stop. A couple of feet to the left was a streetlight, which hovered over the bench I sat on every morning. Two other people were there and I saw another rounding the corner nearest to the bench, so I hurried across the street in order to get the last seat.
I stepped onto the cold, salted road and my right ear bud fell out. I faintly heard the sound of a motor, but it didn't register, so I kept walking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two white lights. I heard a honk and whipped around to face where it came from, thick brown hair falling into my face.
* * * *
I woke with a start. I rubbed my eyes and pulled my phone out of my pocket. 6:03 am glowed on the screen. I looked up and saw the other kids who were on my bus lingering around a streetlight, which would go out in about seven minutes. I stood, using the concrete wall I'd been leaning on to pull myself up.
The bus turned onto my street and slowed to a stop, brakes hissing with the sudden exhaust of air as the doors opened. I was the last one on before the driver closed the doors and idled for a minute while the kids who were running late rushed towards us.
I looked for Christine, my best friend since fifth grade, but she wasn't there. I grabbed the last empty seat and stared out the window, watching the dead trees gradually blur.
I was the first off and the first in home room. I took my usual seat in the far right corner of the room and laid my head on the desk. I was so achy. Never again would I use concrete as a headboard.
A little later, my teacher announced that there would be an assembly today to “shed light on recent events”. I was confused, but didn't care. Mrs. Whell was an American Literature teacher who had published several poems, so she was always speaking vaguely or in riddles, imposs. “Make sure you use the bathroom before we head down,” she sighed, rubbing her hands together.
“Exactly how long is this going to take?” a blond student named Maria asked. I’d never liked her and I was fairly certain she wasn’t too fond of me, either.
“Well, all day. But fear not, for it's an early dismissal.” She adjusted her glasses and nodded. “And we're off!”
I followed the class out and slipped into the bathroom when we got to the door. I did my business, washed my hands, and searched my pockets for some source of entertainment. Shoved into my front pocket was my iPod. Perfect.
I ran the ear buds up my shirt so that no one could see the wire if I pulled my long dark hair front. I was an expert at this by now.
The auditorium doors were open and the crowd hummed. I could pick out some words and a few distinct voices, but for the most part, I wasn't paying attention.
The only open seats I could see were in the last few rows, so I sat in the back corner, slouched so far that I was practically lying. I scrolled through myriads of songs, most of which I knew by heart, until finally I decided to test my luck and hit play all.
The first song was one of my favorites, “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry. I closed my eyes and turned the volume up until everything but my music was entirely inaudible.
About four songs later, I looked up to see the principal, Mr. Caite, unintentionally stomp up the stage steps, stumbling as he did so. I rolled my eyes and started playing games.
I got bored and decided to sleep, so I put on soft songs and closed my eyes.
When I woke up, my iPod's battery was dead. I wrapped the wire tightly around it before returning it to my pocket.
“...our bright Kayla dearly,” Mr. Caite finished. He gathered his papers and cleared his throat. “If homerooms would please exit according to seating, it would be greatly appreciated. I'm sure no one is in the mood for chaos.” Mr. Caite nodded and hopped down the steps, leaving the room through the back door.
My homeroom was one of the first to leave, but I stayed until everyone was gone, mostly because I wasn't a fan of being trampled. But I was also confused. I'd heard my name at the end of the principal's speech. Was he talking about me? I know there are probably plenty of other Kayla's in this school, but still, I couldn't help but wish I'd paid attention.
As I left, I checked the clock. 11:37. Today, we were dismissed at 11:38. Who would notice if I left a minute early? Even if someone did, they wouldn't care.
Still, I just stood there, debating whether I should go or not. Before I could give myself an answer, people started pouring into the halls.
“It's just so sad,” a nasally voice almost shouted.
“She was so sweet,” another replied.
“And smart,” a third person added.
It wasn't any of my business, but I asked anyway. “Who?” I was walking behind the trio of short, pimple-faced students. They just ignored me. “Who was sweet and smart?” Again, I got no response.
I’m usually one to avoid attention or social interaction at all costs, but this was ridiculous, so I tried to grab the tallest, a red head. I must have missed.
“Why is it so cold?” She shivered and rubbed her arms as they opened the door.
The mousy brunette to her left laughed. “Maybe because it's January?”
I just sighed and slowly walked to my bus. I needed to get home and take a nap. Again.
For the most part, everyone was on their buses. I followed a tall chubby kid named Chris who lived down the street from me.
He waddled down the sidewalk under the weight of his back pack. If he wasn't in a hurry, than neither was I. We were only about three yards apart and I would get on less than a minute after him. If the driver saw him, he would see me, too.
I felt my pocket vibrate and pulled out my phone to check it. I tried to flip it open, but fumbled and it fell, the back cover flying off and the battery flying out. I bent over to pick it up and returned the parts to their respective places, but when the screen lit up, nothing was new. I figured it was just a ghost vibration.
I saw Chris at the door of the bus and ran after it. I breathed out in relief when I saw him trip on the stairs. It wasn't as if I hated the kid, but his clumsiness was buying me and my sore body time.
I clutched my phone and slowed. As I approached the bus, the doors folded out, closing in my face.
“Very funny,” I said sarcastically and rolled my eyes.
The bus rumbled to life and edged forward.
“Hey, give it back!” I heard a small boy yell through a newly opened window, which had a worn dirty hat dangling carelessly out of it.
“Enough!” The driver's voice shouted above every other noise. “Give it back. Now.”
The hat was pulled back in. “Thank you!” the boy shouted back just before the window closed and the bus left.
My jaw dropped. Didn't anyone see me? I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose, feeling the beginnings of a headache. I shook my head and started walking home.
* * * *
When I finally got home, my step dad was pulling into the driveway.
“Hey, Stan,” I mumbled, following him into the house.
He ignored me, set something down beside him, and unlaced his boots, frown on his thin, wrinkled face.
“Whatever,” I said, sighing, and kicked off my wet sneakers. I dropped my soaked socks on top of them and padded over to the kitchen. I swung the door open and saw my mother staring at the water stained wall. I'd ruined that as I toddler when I tried to bathe myself in the sink.
“My baby girl...” she mumbled. She pulled her pitch black hair to one side and covered her face. “My beautiful baby girl…”
“Right here, Mom,” I sat on the edge of the table next to her chair.
She shook her head, “Kaye baby...” she said shakily and pulled her hands away, eyes still shut.
“Mom, is everything okay?”
Behind us, the door creaked. “Here's your daughter,” Stan said bitterly as he slid a dark wood box onto the table next to my mother's elbows. His expression softened when he saw her shoulders shaking. “It's lined with satin. I thought she'd like that, being obsessed with that song and all.” He shifted uncomfortably before walking away, gaze fixed on the floor.
“Mom, what's going on?”
She stood abruptly, chair falling back in the process, and pushed open the back door. I watched her make her way into the nearly melted snow and fall to her knees.
Finally, I looked at Stan's box. My breath caught in my throat and I felt sick to my stomach. My legs went numb and my clutched fists grew sweaty. My mind stumbled over itself, trying to piece everything together. Tears built up in my eyes and threatened to spill, their heat stinging.
Pyro graphed onto the wood was:
“Kayla Lynn Truitt